Pinot noir


The primary sparkling wines that issue from Schramsberg Vineyards are vintage-dated, I’ve just been tasting the releases from 2012. The venerable winery, founded in 1965, also offers a non-vintage sparkler called Mirabelle, a product that has steadily improved — and increased in price — over the years. The current version of the Scramsberg Mirabelle Brut is a blend of 83 percent 2011 and 17 percent reserve wines held back from previous years. The designation is California, because grapes are drawn from these counties: Sonoma, Monterey, Mendocino, Santa Barbara and Marin. It’s a combination of 52 percent chardonnay and 48 percent pinot noir. The color is medium straw-yellow, enlivened by a potent upward stream of finely honed bubbles; aromas of green apples and lime peel open to notes of quince and ginger, with hints of lightly buttered cinnamon toast and limestone; the overall effect is savory and saline, like heather, marsh grass and seashells. Squinching acidity contributes crispness and animation to this sparkling wine, which delivers flavors of roasted lemon, toasted hazelnuts and a touch of toffee; it’s quite dry and seems not to attempt the ethereal and elegant realms that Schramsberg’s vintage sparklers do; instead, this is about substance, moment and momentum on the palate, with a lively and dense character. Alcohol content is 12.6 percent. Drink with a variety of flavorful appetizers, especially revolving around grilled shrimp, smoked salmon and crab. Excellent. About $27.

A sample for review.

A blend of grapes from four vineyards and a plethora of classic clones, the Benovia Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley, offers a medium ruby color that shades into ethereal transparency at the rim; first come smoke and loam, then an earthy briery-brambly quality, followed by touches of black cherry, cranberry and a hint of pomegranate seemingly macerated with cloves and sandalwood, mulberry and rhubarb; yes, that’s quite a sumptuous panoply of effects. The wine is dense and super satiny on the palate, a pretty wine with pockets of darkness and something sleek, polished and intricate that reminded me of the line from Keats’ sonnet “To Sleep”: “turn the key deftly in the oiled wards.” Not that this pinot noir feels too carefully made — winemaker is Mike Sullivan — because it concludes on a highly individual and feral note of wild berries, new leather, fresh linen and finely-milled tannins, all propelled by bright acidity. Alcohol content is 14.1 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 with roasted chicken, seared duck breast, lamb or veal chops. Excellent. About $38.

A sample for review.

Nobilo Wines qualifies as a pioneer winery in New Zealand, being founded in 1943, a mere blip in time for many estates in Europe. Better late than never, right! Anyway, the Icon label is Nobilo’s top designation, and today I look at the Nobilo Icon Pinot Noir 2013, Marlborough. The wine is a blend of grapes from three estate vineyards lying at different altitudes on different types of soil. It aged 10 months in French oak, 20 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby in the center shading to a transparent rim; very attractive aromas of raspberries, cloves, rhubarb and smoked black cherries are twined with fairly profound notes of loam and underbrush, while a few minutes in the glass deepen the spicy element. This pinot noir is quite dry, edging toward finely-sifted dusty tannins, but it retains a feeling of juicy ripeness around the circumference, as well as offering a supple and satiny texture. It trades principally, however, on the earthy aspect, as it gathers its forces of mushrooms, briers and brambles, a touch of some rooty tea and dollops of graphite for a cool, slightly chiseled finish. 13 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 with grilled lamb or veal chops. In some degree, this pinot noir lacks the balancing effect of grace and elegance so essential to the grape, but it offers an interesting and satisfying exploration of the dark side. Excellent. About $20, representing Good Value.

Constellation Imports, Gonzales, Calif. A sample for review.

Oh, what the hell, let’s have a bottle of sparkling wine! Surely you can come up with something to celebrate. Or not. I would just as soon drink Champagne and other forms of sparkling wine for any purpose, any whim, any occasion, even if it’s merely standing around the kitchen preparing dinner. For our category of sparkling wine today, then, I choose the Domaine Chandon Étoile Brut Rosé, a non-vintage blend of primarily chardonnay and pinot meunier grapes with a dollop of pinot noir, the sources being the Carneros regions in Sonoma County (58 percent) and Napa County (42 percent). The wine rested sur lie — on the residue of dead yeast cells — five years in the bottle after the second fermentation that produces the essential effervescence. The color is an entrancing medium copper-salmon hue riven by an upward-surging torrent of glinting silver bubbles. Notes of blood orange, strawberry and raspberry unfold to hints of lime peel, quince and ginger, with, always in the background, touches of limestone, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and orange marmalade; think of the tension and balance between the subtle sweet fruitiness and bitterness of the latter. On the palate, this sparkling wine works with delicacy and elegance to plow a furrow of juicy red berry and citrus flavors — with a bit of pomegranate — into a foundation of slate and limestone minerality and lively acidity for a crisp, dynamic texture and long spicy finish. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $50.

A sample for review.

Like a poem by Walt Whitman or the notion of democracy itself, the best wines embrace contradiction and resolve paradoxical elements into a sense of palatable completeness. An excellent or exceptional wine may be both elegant and propulsive, chiseled and generous, rich and warm yet cool and aloof, glamorous and rigorous altogether. The best scenario occurs when such a wine conveys the panoply of its character with subtlety and nuance. Must all wines exhibit such a congeries of effects, depth and dimension? Certainly and thankfully not. Sometimes — quite often actually — all we require is a decent quaff, a well-made but uncomplicated wine, to accompany a simple meal. It must be a bit wearying always to drink the world’s finest, most complex, demanding and attention-grabbing wines, though aside from collectors possessing rare fiduciary prowess and a select crew of wine critics that does not include me, most of us will never be able to test that hypothesis. After that prelude, then, here is a pinot noir wine of gratifying qualities, a perfectly balanced projection of the attributes I mentioned above. The Foursight Wines Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County, is a hand-crafted product — the popular term today is “artisan” — that was pressed in a wooden basket press, fermented with native yeast, saw only 40 percent new French oak and was bottled unfined and unfiltered. The color is a lovely medium ruby hue that shades to a transparent rim. First, we notice the wine’s spicy nature: cloves, sassafras and sandalwood, and then the expansive quality of its scents and flavors of macerated red raspberries, currants and plums, tinged with black fruit, something like cherry skins and pips and a note of black currant; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of dust, graphite and loam for the essential earthy quality without which pinot noir wines seem to lack varietal integrity. While sensually pleasing with its supple and satiny texture, this pinot noir unfolds a burgeoning mineral edge honed, it feels, by a beam of bright and bracing acidity. The finish builds a case for the floral aspect with touches of lavender and rose petals, while the combination of wild berries and slightly candied berry fruit gives it a sheen that’s both feral and sophisticated. The alcohol content is a blessed and beautifully manageable 13.6 percent. Drink now through 2018 to 2020 with a roasted chicken, a grilled lamb or veal chop. Production was 224 cases. Winemaker for Foursight Wines is Joe Webb. Excellent. About $46.

A sample for review.


I opened this bottle of Champagne Friday night for LL’s birthday eve. The Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut is 100 percent pinot noir from 10 Grand Cru vineyards. The color is medium salmon-copper with a tinge of topaz, like tarnished silver over rose-gold, enhanced by a swirling upward tempest of tiny silver-flecked bubbles. Imagine a compote of strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb, macerated in orange zest, cloves, dried thyme and heather; couple that concept with notes of lightly toasted brioche, Rainier cherries and pink grapefruit, all founded on deeper layers of chalk and flint. Add the dimensions of a savory, resonant and bracing structure that balances sleekness, delicacy and elegance with an essential lithic and earthy character. Altogether fleet-footed yet dignified, evanescent yet enduring — at least until you finish the bottle. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $99.

Imported by Laurent-Perrier U.S., Sausalito, Calif. A sample for review.

If a pinot noir wine doesn’t touch both the sublime of the ephemeral and the profundity of the chthonic, it is, to me, perhaps not a failure but a gravely lost opportunity in allowing the grape’s complicated and paradoxical virtues to express themselves. Greg Bjornstad, winemaker for Pfendler Vineyards, employs the panoply of craft, art and intuition to make pinot noirs that satisfy my desire for the broad range of the grape’s character and dimension. The winery is owned by Kimberly Pfendler, pictured here. The Pfendler Pinot Noir 2013, Sonoma Coast, aged 11 months in French oak barrels, 50 percent new. The color is a fairly opaque ruby shading to transparent magenta at the rim; what a seductive procession of black cherries and cranberries, with notes of cloves and sassafras, pomegranate, potpourri and sandalwood, emerges from the glass! The texture offers a lovely, dense, satiny drape that flows with lithe and lissome engagement on the palate, while a few moment’s pause for swirling, sniffing and sipping lend the wine hints of smoke and tobacco leaf, rose petals and rhubarb. Earthy, leathery elements burgeon, and the wine takes on more loamy, underbrushy qualities as it leans toward the power of slightly dusty tannins and a flinty mineral structure. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Production was 350 cases. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Come on, you know that your sainted mother deserves some Champagne or sparkling wine on Mother’s Day, especially after all the trouble, toil, stress and tears you put her through. Remember how she bailed you out of jail at 3 a.m. that time? (And then docked your allowance forever.) Remember how she wrote your term paper on Moby Dick after the dog ate your notecards? Remember how she stood up for you against the imprecations of the king your father and ensured your claim to the Throne of the Recalcitrant Kingdoms? You owe her, dude! (Or dudette!) Here, in honor of Mother’s Day, is a roster of seven sparkling wines and Champagnes to tempt every palate and soothe every spirit. Four are from California, three from France, including two real and actual Champagnes. Prices start at about $22, though you can find stores around the country that discount radically. Since this is the Weekend Wine Notes post, I eschew a plethora of technical, historical and geographical data in favor of brief and incisive reviews designed to pique the interest and whet the palate. I will mention that all of these products are made in the Champagne method of second fermentation in the bottle. Unless pointed out specifically, these bottles were samples for review. Enjoy! (In health and moderation.)

Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1” hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
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Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs nv, Carneros. 12.2% alc. 92% pinot noir, 8% chardonnay. Very pale copper-onion skin hue; pert and lively, with a pleasing froth of glinting bubbles and attractive aromas of red currants and raspberries, touches of cloves, orange peel and peach, and hints of hazelnuts and cinnamon toast; bracing acidity; very nice intensity and body, with a lively texture and finish. Very Good+. About $22, a local purchase.
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Lucien Albrecht Brut Rosé nv, Crément d’Alsace. 12% alc. 100% pinot noir. Shimmering copper-salmon hue; a fountain of glittering tiny bubbles; raspberries and lime peel, blood orange and orange blossom; spiced tea and limestone; almost tart but full and round; delicate yet steely; slightly austere, saline mineral-laced finish. Real style and racy character. Very Good+. About $22.
Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, N.Y.
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Mirabelle Brut Rosé nv, California (from Schramsberg). 12.8% alc. 53% chardonnay, 47% pinot noir. Medium salmon-peach hue; dependable stream of tiny bubbles; notes of strawberries, raspberries and orange zest; very crisp and and animated; very dry and a bit chiseled with elements of limestone and flint but with a lovely texture that deftly balance spareness with moderate lushness. Delightful. Very Good+. About $26.
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Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2011, North Coast. 12.5% alc. 100% chardonnay. Platinum blond color, befitting a “white from whites” sparkling wine; a swirling torrent of tiny bubbles; roasted lemon and spiced pear, quince and ginger, cloves and a hint of mango; touches of toasted brioche, lemon balm and almond blossom; decisive limestone minerality and incisive acidity make it fresh and clean, vibrant and lively, all finely-tuned and lithely toned; the finish is fine, elegant, a little austere. Always a favorite in our house. Excellent. About $38.
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Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut nv, Napa and Sonoma counties. 48% chardonnay, 46% pinot noir, 6% pinot meunier. Pale gold color; a fountain of tiny shimmering bubbles; apples and lemons, spiced pear, hint of brioche and a touch of toffee; savory and saline; quite dry but expansive and generous; lots of chalk and limestone minerality; a large-scale sparkling wine that balances tasty roasted lemon and toasted hazelnut flavors with lip-smacking acidity; all devolving to an elegant finish packed with flint, cloves and grapefruit. A great performance, refined, generous and integrated. Excellent. About $40.
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Champagne Canard-Duchêne Authentic Brut nv. 12.5% alc. 45% pinot noir, 35% pinot meunier, 20% chardonnay. Pale gold color; steady stream of tiny bubbles; grapefruit and roasted lemon, lightly toasted brioche and lemongrass, notes of spiced pear, quince and ginger; very dry, heaps of smoke, chalk and limestone but expansively fitted with citrus flavors and hints of peach; crisp, almost tart, certainly lively and engaging. Our new favorite Champagne at home. Excellent. About $40, a local purchase.
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Nicolas Feuillette “D’Luscious” Demi-Sec Rosé nv. 12.5% alc. 60% pinot noir, 30% pinot meunier, 10% chardonnay. Lovely dusty topaz hue; not so much sweet — demi-sec means “half-dry” — as slightly voluptuous in texture and bursting with ripe fruit in the strawberry and raspberry range; the off-set is provided by notes of yeast and fresh biscuits, almond skin, limestone minerality and brisk acidity; a touch of orange zest is a bit candied. More balanced than I would have thought; quite lovely and enjoyable. Excellent. About $59.
Imported by Ste Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville, Washington.
Image from somminthecity.com.
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I have been reviewing the pinot noir wines of Black Kite Cellars since the vintage of 2007 was released, but recently had the opportunity to try the winery’s chardonnays for the first time, as well as its flagship “Angel Hawk” pinot noir. Winemaker Jeff Gaffner makes the Black Kite wines from separate blocks of the estate vineyards in Mendocino County as well as from vineyards in Sonoma Coast and Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Gaffner is also proprietor and winemaker for Saxon Brown, whose wines I have been tasting recently and will report about soon.

These bottles were samples for review.
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Black Kite Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Soberanes Vineyard, nestled in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range, is owned by Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni, both from farming families long rooted in Monterey County. From this vineyard, and others they own in the Highlands, they supply notable wineries with chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah grapes. This aged 10 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels. It’s a bold, ripe and spicy chardonnay, displaying a medium gold hue and forthright aromas of roasted pineapple, caramelized grapefruit, lightly buttered cinnamon toast, cloves and a hint of toasted coconut, all accumulating in what long-time readers of this blog will recognize as not my favorite manner of chardonnay. It’s quite dry but juicy with citrus flavors, pear and lemon oil; dense, viscous, almost talc-like in texture but saved by a fundamental quality of brisk acidity and limestone minerality. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 195 cases. Perhaps this requires a year or two in bottle to calm down a bit and resolve itself. Until then, Very Good+. About $45.
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Black Kite Cellars Gap’s Crown Chardonnay 2013, Sonoma Coast. The 138-acre Gap’s Crown Vineyard lies in the cool and windy Petaluma Gap area in southwest Sonoma County; elevation varies from 300 to 800 feet above sea level. First planted in 2002, it supplies primarily pinot noir grapes (and some chardonnay) to a roster of California’s best pinot producers, Bill Price purchased the vineyard in January 2013. Price owns one of California’s best-known vineyards, Durell Vineyard, which he purchased in 1998. He co-founded the private equity firm Texas Pacific Group in 1992 and sold his share back to the company in 2007, and that, friends, is a lesson in how you get into the vineyard and winery business. Price is chairman of Kosta Brown Winery and Gary Farrell Winery — you know those names — and has interest in Kistler, another name you know. This chardonnay marks the first wine from the vineyard for Black Kite. It aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 40 percent new and presents a more classic restrained version of chardonnay than the example from the Soberanes Vineyard mentioned above. Still, this is quite pronounced in its expression of pineapple and grapefruit scents and aromas, highlighted by notes of ginger, quince and spiced pear. The texture is pleasingly dense, not viscous or oily and it offers more acidity and limestone minerality by several degrees. In fact, this is a chardonnay of crystalline clarity and eloquence that culminates in a long, compelling finish. 14.1 percent alcohol. Production was 236 cases. Drink now through 2020 to ’23. Excellent. About $45.
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Black Kite Cellars “Angel Hawk” Pinot Noir 2012, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. This wines derives from vines that owners Rebecca and Tom Birdsall and winemaker Jeff Gaffner consider the best of their estate vineyards. And while my heart sinks to read that a pinot noir wine aged 19 months in 100 percent new French oak barrels — I think that’s typically too much new oak for too many months for pinot noir — this model handily absorbed that influence and turned into a deep, supple, lithe and super satiny wine. The color is deep ruby with a transparent rim; rich aromas of spiced and macerated black cherries, currants and plums are permeated by notes of pomegranate, rhubarb and loam; a few moments in the glass bring in hints of cloves, white pepper, leaf smoke and tobacco. This layered panoply of sensation segues smoothly to the palate, where the wine flows purposefully to a graphite-packed, slightly tannic finish. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 190 cases. This is obviously no evanescent, ephemeral, elegant pinot noir; rather, it draws on the grape’s potential for power and substance, helped a bit in the cellar, of course, though it still beautifully captures its essential character. Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Excellent. About $85.
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Ripped with white hot heat from the pages of my notebooks are these reviews of 10 pinot noir wines, primarily originating in California but including examples from Western Australia and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. I avoid technical, historical or geographical data in these reviews for the sake of brevity and immediacy, hoping to pique your interest and whet your palate. With one exception, duly mentioned, these wines were samples for review. Enjoy!
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Ad Lib Cruel Mistress Pinot Noir 2014, Pemberton, Western Australia. 14% alc. Medium ruby color shading to transparent magenta; pomegranate and cranberry, touch of sour cherry; sassafras and cloves; an intense core of lavender and violets; warm, spicy, satiny. Incredibly charming yet with pleasing heft and substance. Very Good+. About $17, marking Real Value.
Imported by Middleton Family Wines, Shandon, Calif.
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Argyle Spirithouse Pinot Noir 2012, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13.5% alc. 850 cases. Lovely medium ruby-cerise color; enticing aromas of red cherries and currants, rose petals and lavender, cloves and sassafras, a hint of loam; more serious on the palate, very supple and satiny texture, deftly threads a fine line of acidity and flinty minerality, but you feel some austerity from mid-palate back through the finish, in which the oak makes itself known. Try from 2016 through 2019 or 2020. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $75.
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J Vineyards and Winery Pinot Noir 2013, Russian River Valley. 14.3% alc. This well-known producer, famous for its sparkling wines, was recently acquired by E&J Gallo. Translucent medium ruby hue; red and black cherries, cranberries; notes of cloves and sandalwood, mocha, tar and loam; nothing plush or opulent here, rather spare and reticent but with lively acidity and a lovely satiny drape on the palate and slightly exotic red and black fruit flavors. Now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $40.
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VML Wines Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley. 14.7% alc. VML is Virginia Marie Lambrix, owner and winemaker. Dark ruby-magenta hue; cranberry and pomegranate, hints of blueberry tart, cloves and cinnamon, notes of violets and rose petals; a little fleshy and meaty; quite lively and dynamic; sweet red cherries, rhubarb; loam and slightly dusty tannins; a finish of spice, sour cherry and graphite. Pinot noir as force of nature, exotic but true. Now through 2017 or ’18. Excellent. About $32.
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Paul Dolan Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012, Potter Valley, Mendocino County. 13.5% alc. Radiant and intense medium ruby color; black and red cherries and currants, touch of plum; cloves and sassafras, violets and potpourri, loam, briers and a top-note of tart cranberry; ripe and a little fleshy; quite dry, and it develops a surprising amount of tannin, becomes rather austere on the finish, with oak taking a dominant role. Now through 2018 or ’19. Very Good+. About $30.
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Les Cousins Pinot Noir 2011, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 13% alc. The second label of Beaux Freres Vineyard. Transparent medium ruby-garnet; macerated red currants and cherries permeated by notes of tobacco and cloves, apple peel, with undertones of cinnamon and sandalwood; supple and very satiny in the mouth, balancing the dry/juicy dichotomy with ripe and slightly roasted red fruit and clean acidity; a dry spicy finish and fillips of moss and loam. A pinot of lovely dimension and detail. Now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $30, a local purchase.
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Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2013, Monterey 53 percent, Sonoma 31 percent, San Benito 16 percent. 14.3% alc. Bright cherry-magenta hue; black and red cherries, pert cranberry and spicy pomegranate, cloves and sassafras; briery and brambly earthiness; a woodsy pinot noir, with notes of allspice and sandalwood, moss and dried porcini; some graphite and mildly dusty tannins; lithe and slightly sinewy texture, quite dry. Now through 2018 to 2020. Very Good+. About $35.
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McIntyre Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 14.5% alc. 368 cases. Absolutely entrancing mulberry-magenta color, limpid and transparent; every element that I adore about pinot noir but both generous and intense; ripe black cherries, currants and plums, violets and lavender, notes of cloves and sassafras; a touch of graphite and hints of leather and woodsy aromas; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of tobacco and leaf smoke; a layer of briers and brambles underlies spicy and succulent black and red fruit flavors ensconced in a lithe and supple texture through which bright acidity cuts a swath; a sleek and elegant pinot but with a feral edge. Now through 2018 to 2020. Exceptional. About $42.
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Dolin Estate Pinot Noir 2012, Sta Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. 14.3% alc. 485 cases. Transparent medium ruby color; smoke, cinnamon toast, rhubarb and sassafras, red currants and cranberries; underbrush and loam, vital and vibrant acidity, juicy with red and black fruit flavors yet spare, a bit chiseled; gradually unfolds notes of cloves and sandalwood, leather and slightly creamy oak, and you feel the oak influence etched along the circumference; lovely and dynamic presence and heft yet with a beguiling ephemeral quality, a bit elusive and tantalizing. Now through 2017 to ’19. Excellent. About $ .
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Kukeri Pinot Noir 2012, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 13.9% alc. 61 cases produced. Limpid medium ruby color; sandalwood, violets and cloves, macerated red currants and cherries with a hint of strawberries and some dried fruit in the background, notes of mint and tobacco leaf; sleek, subtle and satiny, quite dry; a few moments in the glass bring up touches of pomegranate and rhubarb, loam and old leather; an autumnal, woodsy feeling as the oak comes up through the finish. Not quite Excellent, because the oak in some measure mutes the wine’s sensual aspects; otherwise it’s quite beguiling, so, Very Good+, with final judgment withheld. About $42.
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